By Max Liboiron.

An international group of scientists, including the young Chelsea Rochman and Mark Anthony Browne from California, with the support of the veteran marine scientist Richard Thompson from the UK and a host of others from the USA and Japan, has called on policy-makers to classify plastic waste as hazardous waste. Their argument, published in the latest issue of Nature, states that classifying plastic waste as hazardous waste is not only a more accurate description of its toxic activities, but will also allow effective action to be taken against such harms. Note that they are not calling for the end of plastics– though they target PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate as the most hazardous of the hazards–but for a more rigorous infrastructure that comes with a new classification.

According to a hazard-ranking model based  on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, the chemical ingredients of more than 50% of plastics are hazardous… The monomers making up some plastics, such as polyethylene (used to make carrier bags), are thought to be more benign. Yet these materials can still become toxic by picking up other pollutants. Pesticides and organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls are consistently found on plastic waste at harmful concentrations 100 times those found in sediments and 1 million times those occurring in sea water. Many of these are ‘priority pollutants’: chemicals that are regulated by government agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because of their toxicity or persistence in organisms and food webs. […]

With a change in plastics categorization, numerous affected habitats could immediately be cleaned up under national legislation using government funds. In the United States, for instance, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 would enable the EPA to clear the vast accumulations of plastic that litter the terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats under US jurisdiction.

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This call is remarkable for a number of reasons. The first is that it is gutsy and straightforward in its identification of plastic pollution as an unmitigated harm, but  it is even more remarkable that this balls-out call has been published in Nature, the world’s most cited interdisciplinary scientific journal, and a mainstay for scientific and scientifically-interested communities.

Does this signal the support by the UK publishers of a definition of plastic pollution based on unmitigated harm? There is an ongoing political rigamarole going on in the United States between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the chemical lobby group called American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and other stakeholders as to whether plastic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) is really–truly, surely, demonstrably, always–harmful to consumers or not, the call to skip the back and forth and assign hazardous waste status to plastics we know contain or recruit chemicals we already call hazardous is refreshing, simple, yet still a bold step given politics in the lead author’s home countries. My hat is off to you, Rochman, Browne et al.

Secondly, the call to reclassify plastic waste as hazardous is remarkable for its ability to scale up to meet the severity of the problem. As the article indicates, the production of plastics is increasing exponentially. Most waste does not make it to the landfill or recycling center, but escapes into the environment. Our current infrastructure, from recycling to landfilling, is failing to contain plastics and its harms. By reclassifying plastic waste, both production and collection infrastructures change dramatically in ways that the authors say will both reduce the amount of plastics being produced, and better contain those that are.

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Finally, the report is one of an increasing number of cases of scientists willingly becoming public experts rather than sequestered specialists. There has always been a small culture that propagates the idea that scientists are ethically responsible for their findings, expressed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists founded by former Manhattan Projectphysicists after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in discussions about how science is inherently political such as in Mary O’Brien’s publication of “Being a Scientist Means Taking sides” in The Professional Biologist.  Yet, this is still a ballsy feat in the United States with its strong prejudice against scientists “speaking out of turn.” Scientists are popularly thought to be the tools of policy in a well run technocracy, not the source of calls to action and creativity in the policy realm.  The idea is that impassioned scientists lose objectivity and the ability to do good scientist. But many scientists might argue that their research creates these politics. Looking at shore after shore covered in plastics, and bird after bird with plastics in its belly, conducting study after study that shows the toxicity of plastics and their chemicals, even while you are wearing, sitting on, and eating from plastics, what is a scientist to do? Ethically, as experts and scientists, they are bound to publicize their knowledge, contributing to the public sphere and what some have called “technical democracy.” While Robert Oppenheimer states the role of science, scientists, and open inquiry in a democracy in dramatic terms characteristic of his time, and of his rigorous work in science and ethics following his work on the Manhattan Project:

There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry … There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.

– J. Robert Oppenheimer” in Life, Vol. 7, No. 9, International Edition (24 October 1949), p.58



Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.